Sunday, April 23, 2017

physician, advocate, friend


As a retired physician, I sometimes find myself in a role I am passionate about. I am sometimes invited to accompany friends to their appointments with specialists.
I took a friend with neuro-sarcoidosis to see a physician who specializes in this rare condition at Hopkins. I went to the oncologist with a friend who had a rare retro-peritoneal sarcoma to learn what options were available to her.
“The good physician treats the disease.
The great physician treats the patient
who has the disease.”
~William Osler~
To me, this is a great honor. They are asking me to listen with expert ears to the medical-ese--a foreign language to them--that specialists tend to use when discussing rare or life-threatening conditions. They count on me to help them make difficult decisions. They haven’t studied anatomy. They don’t have access to clinical trials. They don’t understand morbidity and mortality statistics. They want to know how long it will be until they feel better. When they can get back to work. Whether or not they will live to see their first grandchild.
Not only can I provide a “second set of ears” to help them recall important information…but I am able to interpret what we are told, and to translate it into a language they can understand.
True story:
Last week I sat with a friend who was seeking a second opinion from a specialist about complications that arose following surgery to reverse a gastric bypass. That was two years ago. She has undergone 6 procedures since then in a failed effort to close fistulas that developed at the operative site and never healed. One of them has opened out to the skin and drains continuously. No matter what she eats or drinks, some of it ends up draining out through the opening…coffee, ice cream, noodles, corn.
“We don’t know how strong we are
until being strong is our only choice.”
~author unknown~
Her surgeon had nothing else to offer so he referred her to one of the top bariatric surgeons in our area for her thoughts on how to proceed.
The technical details were only part of the problem with this discussion. Honestly, my friend doesn’t much care about the details. She just wants to be healed, whatever it takes…which in her case would be a “miracle” according to this doctor. She described a risky and complicated procedure which would involve a whole team of surgeons, each lending his/her own expertise…and still there was no guarantee the fistula would close. Things could get worse instead of better. My friend could die.
Or…she could consider doing nothing. As hard as it is to imagine, she is still working. She maintains her home and yard by herself, and she gets around on her own. It’s just this awful, foul drainage that gets her down.
So now that she understands her situation, her treatment options, and her prognosis, the hard work begins. Facing reality. Surrendering to it. Pushing through. Maintaining some semblance of the resilience and determination that have kept her going these past two years.
As a physician, my job is done. I listened. I understood. I translated.
As an advocate and friend, though, my job is just beginning…
“Some patients,
though conscious that their condition is perilous,
recover their health simply through their contentment
with the goodness of the physician.”
PS: Every week I contemplate a topic for this blog. For inspiration, I sometimes read up on the field of narrative medicine. Sometimes I look into medical research. I often reach back into my own memory and experience. Last week, though, this story was hand-delivered to me by pure chance. It would be gratifying if, after reading this woman’s story, someone were prompted to offer a prayer for her. If someone found the strength and courage to continue his own medical battle, or to reach out to a friend who is facing a life-threatening illness. Each one a step on the journey toward healing. Thanks for listening.

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